In an open meeting hosted by the Ashoka University Student Government (AUSG) on Wednesday, 16th August, students, alumni and faculty expressed their escalating dismay regarding academic freedom at Ashoka.
Faculty members across departments expressed their solidarity with Sabyasachi Das and the Economics Department, and elaborated on measures they are taking to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future. The Student Government also proposed a tentative plan of action to mobilise student support going forward.
With an estimated attendance of 500 participants, the meeting witnessed enthusiastic participation from the student body, the alumni, and the faculty. Some of the faculty members present included Jonathan Gil Harris, Janice Pariat, Madhavi Menon, Arunava Sinha, Bittu, Bastian Steuwer, Jasleen Kaur Bagga, Krittika Bhattacharjee, Manon Grube, Yatish Arya, Ayush Pant, Rita Kothari, Gilles Verniers.
The meeting was moderated by AUSG President Sankalp Dasmohapatra (UG’24), and Aditi Warrier, (UG’24), Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Faculty Meeting and the Internal Review Committee
Arunava Sinha, Professor of Practice in Creative Writing, shed light on the faculty meeting held earlier on Wednesday, and disclosed the information relayed to faculty members in the course of the meeting.
Sinha referred to a recent incident at Pune’s Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, where Das was scheduled to present his paper earlier this month. “. . .Immediately, the trolls caught on to him,” Sinha stated.*
Das’s talk was cancelled the day before it was set to occur, a faculty member at the Gokhale Institute confirmed to The Edict.
A purported email from the Gokhale Institute’s Social Team informed students that the session “stands cancelled due to unavoidable circumstances.”
According to Sinha, an ad-hoc committee was formed to decide whether Das violated the freedom of expression terms stipulated in the faculty policy handbook on academic freedom. Sinha emphasised that this committee aimed to evaluate the context surrounding the paper rather than its actual content.
Experts in Econometrics were allegedly present on this panel along with members of the Governing Body (GB), which is composed of Chancellor Rudranghsu Mukherjee, Vice-Chancellor Somak Raychaudhury, the Secretary to the Government of the Haryana Education department (in his absence, the Director of the same body), founders Ashish Dhawan and Pramath Raj Sinha, Madhu Chandak, Puneet Dalmia, Siddharth Yog, Deep Kalra and Ziaa Lalkaka.
Reportedly, Das initially agreed to cooperate with committee proceedings, but later refused to attend stipulated committee meetings, and effectively put in his [resignation] papers.
Senior faculty from the Economics department were constantly in contact with Das, trying to get him to rescind his resignation. Das informed them he would not reconsider unless restrictions on him speaking about the paper and presenting it were lifted.
Sinha also confirmed that the faculty present at the meeting unanimously agreed that Das must be reinstated. Vice-Chancellor Somak Raychaudhary communicated that, being an academic himself, he understood the faculty’s concerns, but that his appointment compelled him to represent the interests of the administration.
The Edict reached out to members of the Governing Body, namely, Somak Raychaudhary, Ashish Dhawan, Pramath Raj Sinha, Zia Lalkaka, and Deep Kalra, for comment on the proceedings of the ad-hoc committee. No response has been received yet.
Faculty Demand Framework for Academic Freedom Committee
Rita Kothari, the incumbent Head of Department, English, stated that a senior journalist alerted her to take action regarding the pressure being placed on Dr. Das, reportedly saying [to Kothari] that Ashoka University “. . will be finished” if faculty failed to act.
She stressed that, until an open meeting held earlier on Wednesday, the faculty were kept mostly in the dark about the procedural details surrounding Das’ resignation. She detailed the next step: ensuring the functionality of the Academic Freedom Committee (AFC), which she states now has representatives from across all departments.
Kothari hopes the AFC can act as an independent mediating body handling any encroachments on academic freedom, rather than these issues going directly to the Governing Board. Since the committee has been in the works for quite some time, its mandate and scope have already been defined in the faculty handbook, and it can begin work once a convener was put in place.
Kothari asserted the urgency of this body’s operative status and concluded her statement saying “a strong body of academics” in charge was necessary to ensure that “we are not caught napping again.”
Bittu, Associate Professor of Biology and Psychology said the faculty members were deliberating a framework (a “faculty association”) to address any future disputes relating to academic freedom. The faculty hope to get this system recognized by the Governing Body, for effective involvement.
Dr. Bittu urged the students to think critically about this issue and understand its wider implications beyond academia. He stressed on the role of the ruling party [BJP] in creating an environment of intolerance. He also raised the issue of the larger national narrative being painted by the BJP, with their links to the right-wing extremist organisation RSS and their demonstrated lack of commitment to the spirit of democracy. He concluded, stating it is imperative we are aware of the wider agenda of saffronisation being pushed in Indian academia.
Echoing a similar sentiment, Madhavi Menon, Professor of English, said, “We find ourselves in an ecosystem hostile to many of the things we hold dear at Ashoka.” Finding creative means to engage with that hostility, she said, is the onus of the students and faculty. Emphasising “appeasement never works,” Menon reiterated collective resistance (as students, alumni and faculty) is of utmost importance and the Ashokan community must “stay true to our principles” in these trying times.
Mandakini Dubey, Assistant Professor of English, urged all present, in an exercise in empathy, to try and understand the pressures faced by the founders and the GB in the current political climate. Yet, according to Dubey, this act of "empathetic imagination" should not distract faculty and students from their own aims.
"We must ensure that we safeguard our own interests, which are: academic freedom--the total freedom to teach and study and research the questions that we see fit to teach and study and research, without interference.”
Departmental Course of Action for Striking
Simi Ghosh (Head of Department, Psychology), Sayantini Mukherjee (Assistant Professor, History), and Bastian Steuwer (Assistant Professor, Political Science), when asked about the present silence of their respective departments, expressed that the departments were planning to release statements.
As of 11 am on 18 August, the Political Science and Psychology departments have released statements in solidarity with the Economics department, threatening a boycott of classes in the upcoming semester in case their demands are not met.
In the wake of mounting concerns surrounding students’ academic trajectories in light of potential strikes, Yatish Arya, Assistant Professor of Economics, on behalf of the Economics department, notified students that the exact action plan for such a situation is largely undecided.
Faculty members are in discussion to ensure that the students are least affected academically. Arya said the department wants to put forth a strong stance without jeopardising their students at this crucial academic juncture and would be in communication with the students throughout this process.
Madhavi Menon, on behalf of the English & Creative Writing department, issued a similar statement. While asserting that striking is a very legitimate form of protest; one the administration is taking seriously, she assured students the professors were keen to not lose connection and teaching hours with them.
“Instead of not having classes - we will have sit-ins, teach-ins,” Menon said.
Questions from the Student Body
Students from across the Undergraduate, Masters and PhD cohorts queried whether the AFC would allow room for student representation, since students are involved predominantly in the University’s research ventures as interns/research assistants. Steuwer replied that the composition of the committee, as laid out in the faculty handbook, does not currently involve student representatives and is confined to senior faculty. Members are currently looking into potential for changes.
Advaith Jayakumar, an alumnus of the ASP’23 batch, raised a query regarding the role of the ombudsperson and whether the mechanism could be applied to intervene in case the Governing Board oversteps in cases such as this.
To this, Menon replied that while the ombudsperson’s appointment is a victory, they do not seem to have had any involvement in the current situation.
Justice Madan Lokur, former judge of the Supreme Court, was appointed as the Ombudsperson in June, 2021, in the aftermath of the resignations of Pratap Bhanu Mehta, ex-Vice Chancellor, and Arvind Subramanian, Professor of Economics. Their role was to mediate between Faculty and Administration and “ensure faculty and staff well-being.”
Jayakumar proceeded to ask if it was possible to confirm Pulapre Balakrishnan’s alleged resignation. Arya responded to this stating that while Balakrishnan had tendered a resignation, it hadn’t been accepted as of the open meeting. The faculty does not know whether the GB will accept it, or if he will withdraw his resignation, as of yet.
Swayam Nath (UG’25), reportedly learned that Balakrishnan would be leaving Ashoka upon fulfilling his teaching obligations for the Monsoon 2023 semester during a recent conversation with the professor. “His resignation, if I remember correctly, has been accepted. And he will leave Ashoka this December.”
Balakrishnan confirmed his resignation to The Indian Express on Thursday, August 17th.
The Student Government’s Future Plan of Action
In a closing statement, Dasmahopatra reiterated the AUSG’s demand that the Vice-Chancellor hold an open town hall with faculty, students, and alumni. The SG has reportedly requested meetings with the VC multiple times, to no avail.
Dasmohapatra claimed the SG’s right to oversee and offer input in the decision making process has not been honoured. The AUSG called for suggestions on methods of escalation if Founders, the Boards of Trustees and Management or the Governing Body do not accept demands.
Warrier added the AUSG is currently discussing mobilisation for the incoming batch of freshmen for their move to campus later this week. The incoming batch has been kept in the loop unofficially through their batch group on WhatsApp, and will receive official communication once they have access to their student emails.
Warrier said full-scale mobilisation is planned for when the entire cohort is back on campus for the monsoon semester, in approximately ten days.
*Initially, this read: "Das was stopped mid-way through presenting his paper... [this was] the catalyst for the events that transpired in the following days." This has since been corrected to reflect that it was cancelled in advance. The error is regretted.
This is an updating story. It will be edited as comments and further details come through.